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Longtime love of musicals takes Asper to Broadway

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A chance meeting with the producer of the long-awaited revival of the Broadway musical Pippin led David Asper to become an investor in the $8-million production opening later this month.

It was Asper's younger brother, Leonard, who bumped into producer Bruce Robert Harris (2012 Tony Award winner Clybourne Park) in Newark, N.J., earlier this year and shared a cab with him into Manhattan. When the conversation got around to Harris helping bankroll the transfer of Pippin to Broadway from a successful Boston try-out, Asper told him that David was a huge fan of the beloved Bob Fosse musical and might be interested in adding his financial support to the project.

"I phoned him right away and it took me a nanosecond to decide," says David Asper during a recent telephone interview about his first foray into theatre producing.

"It's for fun. It's a small amount. My purpose is to support this particular show because I just love it. And secondly, I take a business approach to it. I'm pretty confident that this show will pay back."

Asper was in the audience at the Music Box Theatre March 23 when previews began with a cast that includes Matthew James Thomas, Patina Miller and Canadian comedian Andrea Martin. The University of Manitoba assistant law professor first saw the musical by composer Stephen Schwartz (Wicked and Godspell) after it premièred in 1972 with a cast that included Ben Vereen, John Rubenstein, Jill Clayburgh and Irene Ryan (Granny from TV's The Beverly Hillbillies) and ran for five years. It was nominated for 11 Tonys and won five.

Back then, the Aspers were all immersed in musical theatre; David remembers he and his siblings Gail and Leonard performing musicals like Oliver! at the family's cottage. Their dad, Izzy, would often lead them in singing Broadway show tunes at the piano.

"It was amusing in that you'd see little kids running around, singing Man of La Mancha," says David, a father of three, laughing at the memory.

Their dad was especially smitten with Pippin -- a whimsical coming-of-age story about the son of the first Holy Roman emperor Charlemagne -- and introduced to his children its ever-relevant theme of self-fulfilment. Pippin is an idealistic young man who wants to be extraordinary.

"It fit very well with our family ethic -- that your life should have meaning," says Asper, who over the years has owned the cast album, cassette tape, CD and DVD of Pippin. "I suspect that my father thought, 'What a great way to impart that value.'"

Then Asper recites by heart a good portion of the lyrics to one of Pippin's most popular songs, Corner of the Sky. It seems that nearly four decades later the show still resonates with him and inspired him to ensure another generation was exposed to Pippin.

His family was initially convinced he had lost his mind when he told them he was going to invest in a Broadway musical. Producing is a risky occupation; only one in five Broadway productions recoups its investment. There are about 20 producers attached to Pippin and each has a group of theatre angels who provide money to launch shows. For his investment, Asper will get tickets to the April 25 opening and entry to the party afterwards.

"If you are interested in seeing something happen, you have to make it happen," he says. "I did a very small part but you have to be prepared to make it happen."

-- -- --

Last year the Flin Flon Community Choir presented a concert titled Broadway Musicals New York Won't Let Us Do... Yet!.

It was a cheeky dig at Big Apple publishing houses that won't release production rights to big-name musicals to amateur troupes like the one in Flin Flon. The evening included a rendition of Cellblock Tango from the musical Chicago and was a big favourite with audiences.

The reception prompted producer Crystal Kolt to press again for performance rights to the Kander and Ebb show about murder, greed, corruption and treachery in Chicago circa 1920. This time they were granted the rights, clearing the way for an April 12-14 run at the R.H. Channing Auditorium. Citizens of the town of 5,300 have already snapped up almost all 1,300 available tickets.

Every second year the choir, in concert with the Flin Flon Arts Council, goes all out to bring professional quality theatre, performed by amateurs, to the northern town. The budget is $30,000 for a production that involves more than 100 people, 25 of whom are in the cast.

"We're constantly trying to raise the bar," says Kolt, who is also Chicago's director and conductor. "We will have our first real programs -- a big deal for us and I can't tell you how happy I am not to personally print out 1,500 programs on our local photocopier. May seem a little provincial, but it is a pretty big deal from where I am sitting."

Getting to present Chicago has emboldened Kolt to go after the top title on her musical to-do list: Les Misérables.

"We've been asking for 12 to 14 years now," she says. "Our choir is performing at the Lincoln Center in New York next December and I'm going to ask them why they won't let us do it."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 3, 2013 C3

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